Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Meaning of Life

I want to answer the questions: Does life here in this world have meaning? And if so, how can we find it? In discussing this with my wife, we came up with three broad ways in which life can have meaning. These are: community participation, achievement, and sensory satisfaction. I will elaborate on each of these.

By community participation I mean the give and take of relationships spanning the range from that with one's spouse to that with the rest of mankind or of even animal-kind. We are part of a complex community, and being part of it, especially an active part of it, contributes to its vitality. We might teach, we may be a plumber, we may raise children, we may write books, we may be politicians or we may help the poor, and so on. We each bring unique things to our community and affect it in unique ways. Through this community participation our lives gain meaning.

We all have the desire to achieve various things, and by achievement I include creation and discovery. We explore new lands, we overcome struggles, we build small and great things, we design vehicles, we create art and aesthetically pleasing structures, we have children, and the list goes on. This drive to discover, to create and to achieve propels our lives and gives them meaning.

Finally in sensory satisfaction I will include emotional satisfaction and pleasure. We experience the world, we imbibe new drinks, enjoy great food, receive love, affection and admiration from others. This aspect of our lives also gives us meaning.

Whether our lives are short or long, we can each find meaning in these ways. Contrary to what some people claim and I used to think, it is not necessary to have eternal life to have a meaningful life. Rather, if these short lives on earth are all we have, then they are all the more precious and we ought to make the most meaning out of them that we can.


  1. Your post raises some interesting questions:

    Is your definition of meaning distinct from happiness, as defined by ethical philosophy?

    How would you relate your thoughts to the ones expressed by the teacher in Ecclesiastes? Do you see any parallels? What is your take on his periodic use of "remember God"?

    Finally, can death be a source of meaning?

    My quick answers, assuming two different interpretations of meaning:

    Assuming that your use of meaning is congruent with happiness, life can have meaning apart from eternal life. The categories that you propose have a strong association with the ones mentioned in Ecclesiastes. Given the great cultural distance involved between your thought and the author of Ecclesiastes, these categories are likely to be universal.

    My sense is that the author of Ecclesiastes is using "meaning" as a proxy for his search for a goal (telos?) for life. Since his cosmology is cyclic, he concludes that life is meaningless (any "progress" simply leads into the next cycle). Our current cosmology implies either a cyclic universe or one that is descending into ever increasing entropy. I don't think we have an answer to the objections that Ecclesiastes offers to the cyclic universe, but I can see two alternatives if we assume entropy. First, the meaning of life is to have the best possible experience on the way down. This reduces to something much like meaning is congruent with happiness. Second, the meaning of life may be to slow the descent of the universe as much as possible. The behavior that would result from these different definitions of meaning would be radically different: what the Renaissance a great leap forward or an irresponsible waste of limited resources?

    If I assume that you're not defining eternal life to be reincarnation (which leads back to the universe is cyclic), belief in eternal life implies a third cosmology. Some variants of this cosmology, including the one employed by Christianity, are broadly compatible with finding meaning in happiness, but find greater meaning in disconcerting things like death. If people live consistently with these assumptions their lives are radically different. I've always suspected that this is the best possible apologetic for the ideas. Sadly, I often give in to the temptation to find meaning in happiness. As a result, I'm reduced to apologetics like "believe in eternal life so you can find (greater) meaning in your life." Ironically, I've just argued that this is precisely the opposite of what I often do.

  2. I should have made an attempt at defining "meaning." Let me try that now. To say that life has meaning is to say that life has inherent value that motivates one. Meaning is quite distinct from happiness, although gaining happiness can be part of meaning. To say it is meaningless is to say it has no value. I think that is what the writer of Ecclesiastes is saying. He argues that since everything in life is cyclical, it has no value. But while things might appear cyclical on a short time scale, we know they are not cyclical on large time scales, such as the age of civilization, or the age of humankind or the age of the earth. We can see great changes and progression on those scales. So his assumption is wrong and his conclusion does not follow.

    Another thing I disagree with is the claim that life is meaningless without a life-in-heaven after death. Actually I think the opposite is closer to the truth. Postulating heaven reduces if not eliminates value and meaning from this life. This is because then all that is really important in this life is passing some "test" which gets one into heaven. The rest of life is just a waste of time -- what can one do of value in this life that one won't be able to do a million times in heaven? Some people say: one can make converts. But that just makes my point: it is saying this life is purely a means to some other good, its value is restricted to being a means to some other life. But as I argued in my post, this life does have meaning.

    Here's the qualitative comparison I'm trying to make: life could be like a disposable bag in which one carries something else of value but one discards after its use. Or life could be like a beautiful flower which grows, participates in the natural cycle, and then dies and is gone forever. I think the latter model is the one with greater meaning and value.

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  4. It sounds like your thinking lines up better with Socrates. I've always found the account of his imprisonment, trial, and death to be interesting reading. From what I can tell he was agnostic about the possibility of life after death but certainly seemed to argue, live, and die in a way that showed that his life had meaning.

    I'm a bit surprised by your assertion that postulating heaven reduces the value and meaning from this life to passing some "test". I guess I don't look at it from this perspective. While it won't fit into a sound bite, my current thinking assumes that:

    1. Eternal life is really a part of the thing we call the kingdom of God. As such, the placement in time is paradoxical (has happened, is happening, will happen).

    2. The mandate to be images of God (ruling this world the way that God rules the universe) was frustrated but not eliminated by the fall.

    3. The way that we maintain assurance that any of this stuff is true (especially of us) is through it's outworking in our lives and the people around us.

    On the good days I find that the combination of these ideas provides great meaning for what I do in this life, a mandate to do this, and also provides the assurance that I need to continue even when this appears to be self destructive. However, I should note two qualifications. First, I have bad days as well. Second, these ideas don't seem to be necessary: Socrates arrived at the same place without these ideas. I'm fairly confident that I would not do as well without them.

    I'm curious: does any of this sound familiar? I came to the conclusion that these ideas were an integral part of Christianity by studying the N. T., rummaging around in Anabaptist theology, and finally by reading some theology of the larger church. However, I'm finding that this tends to be most clearly stated by the older traditions in the church (Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox churches). My impression is that protestants, especially evangelicals, shy away from these conclusions. Protestants seem to have trouble distinguishing this from works salvation. Perhaps I'm just a product of my conditioning.

    Is it possible that your perception of the antagonism between eternal life and finding meaning in this life is just a sign that you're discontent with the limitations of the theology that you have encountered?

  5. The problem I have with theological answers (to questions like the meaning of life) is that theology creates a set of rules, and then answers the question assuming its rules. Here's an analogy. Someone asks me what his purpose is. I create the rules: I tell him that he is a soccer player and that he must follow the rules of that game. Given those rules, his purpose is clear: score goals against the opponent.

    If one can define the rules it is not too hard to answer the questions. If one can say: "God made man for such and such a reason", then it is not to hard to answer what man's purpose is. But what is someone to do if he is dissatisfied with the rules he grew up with? Should he look for another rulebook (or theology) that sounds better? Should he bite the bullet and accept the rules he has? Or should he try and determine what rules, if any, are actually true, irrespective of whether he likes them or not?

    In this article I was exploring the minimalist perspective: what purpose or meaning follows purely from this short life we have on earth?

  6. What would you say your conclusion about God would be if you could be the one making the rules?

    You seem to believe that He who makes the game makes the rules except when it comes to God.

    Can you come up with a new set of rules that would work better than the 10 commandments do in keeping peace, love and harmony in any society that is willing to keep them?

    Which of the commandments do you find not to be true or to be at fault and why?

  7. My point was that meaning does not come from following rules. We don't need them for gaining meaning or purpose in this life.


  8. What does meaning comes from according to you? Does it come from the lack of boundaries, laws, penalties, fines, Judicial System, moral principles?

    Does meaning in your life derives from being able to break the 10 commandments without ever having to worry about the consequences of your evil actions?

    Would that allow you to experience "freedom" or should we call it by its true name..."licence"?

  9. Answering dan

    Isn't that too extreme? I mean doesn't a lack of rules imply a lack of respect for other people's freedom as well? Could you try to explain what kind of rules are you referring to "that we don't need to gain purpose and meaning in this life?"

  10. And this is the verdict, that The Light came into the world, but people preferred Darkness to Light, because their works were evil.

    For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed.
    But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.